Kipling was bewitched by Shwedagon Paya, the magnificent golden pagoda that dominates Yangon’s skyline. Arriving in Burma’s former capital on a stormy, rain-lashed night, the golden glow acted as a beacon as the taxi headed towards my hotel, and I caught my breath too.
The oldest pagoda in the world, it has had a tumultuous history. It has been ravaged by earthquakes, used by the British army as a fortress and been at the centre of many key political events. These include the day legendary General Aug San threw a mass meeting here in 1946, demanding independence; 42 years later his daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed half a million people here, demanding democracy. In 2007, Shwedagon was at the heart of protests against the military regime, part of the so-called ‘saffron revolution’, when monks led the uprising.
At breakfast, the morning after my arrival, my table at the hotel looked over to the pagoda’s distinctive shape, while an official-looking car with a stars and stripes flag was parked in the car-park below the window.
A special envoy from the USA was in town to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, and he was having a breakfast meeting in my hotel. Back in the mid 1990s, Aung San Suu Kyi’s late mother-in-law, Josette, rang me up and explained that Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott, as tourists holidaying in Burma would help both to legitimise the despotic regime and to put money into their pockets. She asked us not to promote Burma in Wanderlust.
In November 2010, things started to change. Elections were held and, while not completely democratic, a new civilian government was formed to replace the military junta. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Despite refusing to take part in the elections, her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), announced that the full boycott of tourism to Burma should be lifted, and that those wishing to visit Burma ‘in solidarity with the people’ are now welcome.
So, this seemed finally to be the time to visit. And as a companion I took Amrit Singh of tour company TransIndus. Amrit was born in Burma and had for years been in the pro-tourism camp, providing as much money as possible went into private, rather than military, hands.
Our first stop had to be the great golden pagoda that is such a potent symbol of the country. I removed my shoes and socks at one of the entrances (in the 19th century, British refusals to do so helped spark the first Anglo-Burmese war), and took a lift up the steep hillside to the temple complex.
The stupa at the heart of the pagoda is covered in gold plates, completely smothering the brick beneath. The umbrella towards the top is covered in diamonds and rubies, the tiers above are gold plated and jewellery offerings hang from the shaft above, while at the very top, the orb is covered in over 4,000 diamonds and is tipped with a 76-carat diamond.
“Last time it was restored, people from all around the country queued to leave their jewellery as offerings,” explained Kyi Kyi, my local guide. This has been the case since the 15th century, when Queen Shin Sawbu donated her weight in gold. Today, the complex is dotted with vending machines selling gold leaf, typically 300 or 500 kyat: around 30p or 50p at the black market rate (which everyone uses; the official rate is seven kyat to the US dollar, while the street rate was around 700!).
While volunteers were collecting donations, worshippers were making offerings of flowers, food and gold leaf at eight separate shrines, arranged around the stupa like points on a compass. These shrines, it transpired, related to the day of the week on which worshippers were born – Burmese astrology splits the week into eight days by subdividing Wednesdays into mornings and afternoons.
Each of the eight day-signs corresponds to a cardinal point, and at temples one can pray at the point (north, north-east, south, south-east, etc) corresponding to one’s sign. Modern technology (a smartphone) revealed that I was born on a Saturday, making me a naga (or dragon). My ruling planet was Saturn, and the point I needed to pray at was at the south west of the stupa.
Families sat in the shade of the stupas, or inside the covered pavilions, eating lunch. I had several friendly offers to join little groups: bowls of rice or noodles were waved in my direction. The temples here are not somewhere to just pop into; families or groups of friends will spend the day here, turning it into a social occasion.
Buddhism here is a living, breathing religion that underpins everyday life, and that can lead to an interesting conflict at historical sites. Visitors expect to see sites preserved as they were, whereas Buddhists want to build new monuments or restore existing ones to gain ‘merit’ for their next life.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Bagan, 600km north of Yangon, where nearly 3,000 monuments stretch out across a plain close to the broad and shallow Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, forming one of Asia’s most magical sights. However, the restoration of some of the pagodas by the government or individuals, has led to this incredible site being declined Unesco World Heritage status to date.
A handful of the pagodas, most of which date back to the 11th to 13th centuries, draw the crowds, but the majority are left in silent contemplation, just waiting to be explored on foot, by horse carriage or on bike.
In Bagan, all the talk was of Suu Kyi’s visit a few weeks earlier, her first trip outside of Yangon in many years. “We told her that we need tourism,” said one local. Suu Kyi responded by giving the firmest indication yet that she is in favour of sensitive tourism, saying: “Visits of tourists should benefit the local communities and cultural resources.”
At times, I felt I was following in The Lady’s footsteps. Visiting the Bagan River View Hotel, splendidly set on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, I was shown the room, or rather villa, where she stayed during her visit.
Like her, I headed out on an excursion to Mount Popa. This may be a devoutly Buddhist country but there is also a strong belief in nats, a type of spirit. There are 37 Great Nats, and numerous others that act as guardians of water, rocks, trees or households. Mount Popa is considered home to the most powerful nats, and so is an important place of worship.
En route, we stopped at a roadside stall selling palm-sugar products and peanut oil. An elderly man was sending an ox around in circles, grinding peanuts to make peanut oil. The ox looked sleek and well-fed, and no wonder, as it got fed the leftover peanut paste. This was a family-run business, one of several along the road.
Further on, groups of children or families would linger by the roadside, selling gasoline or fruit, or hoping for sweets or even money to be thrown by passing families on their way to Mount Popa. It was a festival day and so thousands of pilgrims had made their way here earlier in the day.
We saw no sign of pilgrims until we turned off the asphalt and onto a mud track that led towards Mount Popa. The track up was muddy and churned up, and thronged with gridlocked vehicles of all shapes and sizes, as pilgrims headed to the monastery or away. Meeting a jam, we opted to divert to a nearby hotel instead, leaving the mayhem behind.
From the terrace of the lovely Popa Mountain Resort, we could see all the way to Bagan and the Ayeyarwady River. Behind the hotel, we caught tantalising glimpses of the volcanic peak of Popa itself. Below us was the focal point of the pilgrims; the iconic rocky outcrop of Taung Kalat, the monastery and shrines atop it, glinting like a beacon despite the overcast day. We later walked to its base, past abandoned vehicles that had got stuck in the mud or the traffic.
A shrine at the base contained images of some of the nats. Nearby a charismatic holy man had set up camp in a lean-to. “It takes a long time to reach Nirvana,” he smiled.
I found my own personal nirvana at Inle Lake. Arriving after dark, it had been a joy to open the shutters the next morning to be faced with a tranquil view of water and reed beds. A boat picked me up from the hotel jetty, and I immediately got to see some of the famed local ‘leg-rowing’ in action. The fishermen have long practiced a unique rowing style that involves standing at the stern of their boat on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. Standing allows them to see beyond the lake’s reeds and floating market gardens, although why they use a leg rather than an arm was not clear.
Although I was in a motor launch, the crew used the old-fashioned method to approach and leave the hotel, so as not to disturb the guests. We quietly passed through narrow channels until we reached a spot where the engine could be switched on. Children in smart uniforms rowed their way to school, and women were busy cultivating floating gardens, pulling themselves along on small boats. This was a true water world: the houses, schools, even whole villages perched on stilts.
Everywhere was a hive of activity. Out on the open lake, fishermen were casting and pulling nets, leg-rowing between spots.
In the stilt villages, open doors revealed craftspeople weaving or working with silver or wood. We disembarked at a market, hawkers having rowed in alongside us, pestering us while we browsed the souvenir stalls. This was perhaps the most touristy place I was to visit, but the attention was good-natured and the shopping worthwhile.
It was sunny for the first time in days, catching me out, and I appreciated why so many of the women had faces covered in thanaka, a paste that is derived from the ground bark of a type of acacia. Part cosmetic, it also acts as a sunscreen and a protective barrier. It helped explain the good skin of so many of the women.
Back out on the lake, we stopped for welcome refreshments at a sanctuary for Burmese cats, a café in a beautiful colonial house helping to support the cats in their large run and separate sleeping island. Felines featured too at Nga Hpe Kyaung, or Jumping Cat Monastery as it is colloquially known. Here, the monks have trained the resident cats to leap through hoops.
The particular monk responsible for this was away for a few hours, so we never saw the moggies in action. Instead, we studied the formerly neglected shrines and images that the monks take in from different parts of the country and restore.
Monks are an integral and important part of life throughout Burma. In one monastery in Mandalay, we came upon a monk teaching a class of children too poor to go to school (schooling is free but the uniform, books and materials are not), while toddlers sat around at the back as if at a crèche. At a monastery in Bagan, a dozen small children were setting off in a line for the daily collection of alms; they were refugees from Karen state, still in conflict with the government.
However, the biggest congregation of monks was to come. Over 1,200 of them are based at Mahagandayon Monastery near Mandalay, and queue each day at 11am for their lunch. Some tourists had gathered too to watch the spectacle, but the monks seemed relaxed about the cameras clicking as they filed past. One kindly looking monk stood amongst the small throng of visitors, answering any questions.
“Don’t you get fed up with the tourists taking the photos?” I asked. “No, for we hope they will learn something about Buddhism.” He turned the conversation to more serious matters: “Are you from London? Most of the other monks follow Arsenal or Manchester United, but I’ve always liked Chelsea!”
Burma had indeed been unlike any other land I knew. I’d seen surprising sight after sight: the world’s longest teak bridge near Mandalay, fishermen standing motionless and up to their waist in water nearby; a cave system stuffed full with over 8,000 Buddha images; groups of young men playing chinlone, cane-ball, a game in which they walk in a circle, kicking a rattan ball with their feet or knees.
Back in the Yangon area, we visited members of Amrit’s family. It was five years since her last visit and they kept complimenting her on her weight.
“Wa-laia-ta! Everyone is saying how fat you are!” said a beaming relative. A rather embarrassed looking Amrit explained to me that this was a way of telling her how well she looked. More relatives and family friends arrived.
I idly flicked through a pile of newspapers, unable to understand the words, but interested to see photographs of Suu Kyi in most of them. In one, she sat in a meeting with the new president, her father’s portrait on his wall.
One of Amrit’s family was a journalist, and I asked whether change really was happening. Some of the people I had talked to had been rather cynical about the new government’s intentions (“Same people, just different clothes”). But here the view was rather different: “Things are definitely improving since the change of government.For instance, we have much more freedom with reporting. Some people are resistant to change and there will be obstacles, but things are changing, it will just take time.”
Inevitably, the subject moved to tourism. And I heard what I had been told by so many of the people I had met. “Tell people to come. We need them.”
The author travelled with TransIndus on a Burma Classic private tour
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